Guest Column

Myanmar Needs Urgent Humanitarian Assistance

By Lin Htet Myat 10 December 2021

The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) published a report recently titled Impact of the Twin Crises on Human Welfare in Myanmar. The report paints a bleak picture of the humanitarian situation the country has faced since the junta’s February 1 coup.

In July 2021, in its publication Myanmar Economic Monitor, the World Bank predicted that the number of people living in poverty in Myanmar would double by early 2022, an increase to over 46 per cent of the population, a level not seen since 2005. According to the UNDP’s report, urban poverty will increase threefold, mainly in Yangon and Mandalay, and more than half of Myanmar’s children will be living below the poverty line.

Ayeyarwady Region is expected to have the largest number of people living in poverty, followed by Yangon and Sagaing regions. Poverty is also expected to increase in Rakhine and Chin states, the two poorest states in Myanmar. Job losses and a significant reduction in household incomes are major contributing factors to increased poverty. A massive amount of humanitarian assistance, estimated to be 4.5 per cent of pre-COVID 19 Gross Domestic Product, is needed to lift the newly poor out of the poverty trap. Yangon alone is estimated to require US$500 million out of a total estimated figure of US$3.5 billion.

There is very little chance of meeting these humanitarian needs. A statement from the Emergency Response Coordinator of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) on the increasing violence and humanitarian needs in Myanmar revealed that over three million people are in need of life-saving humanitarian assistance, while less than half of the US$385milllion required under UNOCHA’s emergency response plan for 2021 has been received

It is very obvious that the international community cannot mobilize adequate resources to respond effectively to the worsening humanitarian situation, which is man-made rather than a natural disaster. It is the military regime’s coup and its ruling body, the State Administration Council (SAC), that is completely responsible for the refugees, internally displaced people, killings, arrests and the starvation of millions of innocent civilians.

There are no signs that the SAC will cease violence against unarmed civilians, as it agreed to do under the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) five-point consensus. The military’s recent ramming of protesters in Yangon’s Kyimyindaing Township, and the alleged burning alive of villagers in Tabayin Township in Sagaing Region have made that clear. Junta forces are continuing to bombard villages and employ airstrikes in their raids against People’s Defense Forces (PDF) in Chin State and Sagaing and Magwe regions. As a result, people have resorted to all means of resisting the regime, including armed struggle. An escalating civil war between junta forces and civilian resistance fighters can be expected in the coming months.

Meanwhile, the SAC is launching diplomatic and media campaigns in an effort to gain legitimacy, despite its failure to attain a seat at the United Nations and not being invited to attend the last ASEAN summit. Hence, there is the possibility that the SAC will attempt to use humanitarian assistance as a gateway to international recognition, while at the same time cynically holding hostage people who are in dire need of humanitarian assistance.

The Myanmar military has used this strategy before. They will use the suffering of the people and humanitarian assistance as a way to gain international legitimacy and for winning political support, just as the previous military regime did in its response to the 2008 Cyclone Nargis disaster. In reality, the junta doesn’t care about the welfare of the people, as the UNDP report indicates.

For that reason, it is very important for the international community to consider carefully how to provide humanitarian assistance to the suffering Myanmar people. Most important of all, it must avoid giving legitimacy to the junta which has no popular support at all. It is very clear whose side the Myanmar people are on. Time and again, people express their support for the parallel National Unity Government. Friday’s nationwide Silent Strike is another example of how the country is rejecting military rule.

Myanmar’s situation is quite similar to the crisis in Ethiopia at the moment. The international community should apply non-consensual and unconventional humanitarian intervention strategies such as airlifts into conflict-affected areas where the junta refuses to provide humanitarian access, as well as cross-border humanitarian assistance. At the same time, the international community led by the UN must increase pressure on the junta by applying targeted sanctions, an arms embargo and by using international money-laundering laws.

But, as the UNOCHA statement makes clear, the international community will not be able to mobilize sufficient resources to respond adequately to the scale of the humanitarian crisis that Myanmar faces. Nor can aid do anything to remove the brutal military dictatorship.

In these tragic times, the international community needs to stand on the side of the Myanmar people, refuse to give recognition to the junta and increase the pressure on the regime as much as possible. The vast majority of Myanmar citizens are determined to eradicate this national cancer of military dictatorship once and for all and establish an inclusive, federal democratic union.

Lin Htet Myat analyzes public policy with a focus on economic governance and Public-Private Partnership Projects in Myanmar.

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